Biyernes, Hunyo 29, 2007

My Sister’s Dolls by Francis L. Martinez

My sister and I had a wild, tempestuous relationship that I now jokingly attribute to our incompatible zodiac signs. She’s a Pisces while I’m a Sagittarius, and her tartish, overbearing bossiness often collided with my rebellious pride. It didn’t help that her bullying and my rebelling were encouraged by our parents, who saw them as signs that their children had strong personalities.
Many people ? friends especially, who fancy themselves to be lay counselors ? put it down to sibling rivalry, which is foolish considering that there’s no rivalry at all. True, I sometimes begrudged her minor successes: she was the popular one, the spoiled little girl honor student who made my parents glow with pride every recognition day, the star dancer who seems to have passed through adolescence shaking her hips and sparkling with glitters. And I was the dark twin, the negative image.
But then, I never did mind much being in the shadows. (At eight years old, I already knew where I belonged.) If I was filled with rage whenever my Mom told me to be “more like my sister,” it was because I couldn’t see her point. I loved being alone. I resented the brilliant schoolyards where everyone milled around and played Chinese garter or tag or football. I preferred staying in the room, making a maze of the desks and tables, drawing obscene figures in my notebook, pretending I was a witch intoning spells that would lure my secret crushes into my parlor (my cave had one, it was a beautiful cave.) One of the few times I went out and mingled with my classmates, they were playing a game I had never seen them play before. It was also like tag, except that there was no “it” and everybody was chasing everybody else. And what you had to do was to form a hole with your fist, blow on it, and put it in front of somebody’s crotch ? the more crotches you conquered, the better. I’m not sure how something so vividly homosexual could filter down to childhood games like that. Somebody gay pretending to be an elementary-school bully must have started it.
There are times now, while cruising in Quezon Memorial Circle or Crown Theater, that I half-expect to see all my batch mates playing that same game, their laughter rising among the trees or the chairs, oblivious of the math cards that would be flashed before them after their break. (So far I have seen ten). But even that sensual, titillating game failed to draw me out. Something about it pissed me off. When I blew on my fist and touched the crotch of someone I liked, he whined. He cried that I was supposed to put it “in front of my crotch only,” no “on it.” And I couldn’t see the reason why. What is the point then? Alas, like everything else in life, that prohibition was left unexplained. And there was only that threat of being caught and ridiculed, which drove me back to my cave and my pornographic notebooks.
But going back to my sister…
Truth is, I feel that our antagonism goes back deeper into the past. She hated me because of something I deprived her of, without meaning to, when we were young. It was at that point when my mother started to notice things about me. Sure, on the surface I looked like a regular kid ? rough, cocky, intractable. But I was also given to cryptic silences, to solitude. She would often catch me lying face down under the bed, or curled up in a nook in the kitchen, or squatting on the roof like an Indian meditating under a canopy of stars. It would have been easy to explain these habits away in the case of other boys. A kid sexually experimenting at ten years old might shock his mother, but he will be considered completely, delightfully normal. There was something about me, however, that made my habits suspect, something which my mother couldn’t quite put her finger on. Until one day. It was Saturday morning, and I was home alone. My Dad was on the farm, my Mom in the market, my sister someplace where she was once again spotlit, applauded. Tired of watching Saturday Fun Machine, I decided to explore the various closets and cupboards in the house. This practice, it turns out, was bound to have its feverish repetitions in my life: the search in dark alleys, the prowls in the parks?always the expectation that something awaits to be discovered. I started with my mother’s precious china. The reek of soap and porcelain, the exquisite figures in blue ink. Then I moved on to my father’s mahogany desk (were there any smutty magazines there? Playboy? Penthouse?)
At last, I opened my sister’s closet. Although we shared the same room, neither of us dared rummage through the other’s closet. I don’t know why or when we formed this unwritten rule, but we observed it with a religious firmness. It’s a wonder I didn’t break out in sweat the moment I opened hers. And from it, as though from wonderland itself, sprang all her dolls, catching me defenseless. Barbie’s with pink cheeks and blond hair, Barbie’s with tacky sparkling emerald gowns, Barbie’s with Kens. Stuffed bear, stuffed lioness, stuffed giraffe. Ugly rag dolls, drinking-and-pissing dolls. A mountain of dolls given by doting uncles and aunts, by sweet friends, by our loving Daddy and Mommy. I’d seen them all before, in the living room, while my sister was combing their silky hair, or adorning their ears with fake rhinestones. Funny, but I hadn’t liked them all that much. In fact, I’d though them droll, compared to my collection of plastic soldiers, Lego sets, matchboxes; I’d rather minister war games anytime, make exploding sounds, shoot down imagined enemies.
But that day, I saw their beauty. My jaw fell at the sight of their baby blue eyes. My hand itched to touch their gleaming wardrobes. I could only have a vague sense of what religion was at that time, but I remember them stirring in me something akin to childish faith, the purest kind there was, because devoid of contradictions and full of that same innocence that perhaps saints aspire to. In my mind flashed images of stained-glass windows and votive candles. Jesus sagging on a cross. And I knew, that very moment, with a certainty present only in love, that some things in life are truly sacred, and that those sacred things bring joy.
One by one, I took them out of their prison, lay them on the braided rug on the floor, and watched them catch the light streaming through the window. I became their prince, their knight in shining armor, yes, but I also became their mother, their confidante; the fairy who granted their most secret wishes, who turned their rags into gorgeous gowns with a flick of my magic wand.
It was this way, hunched over like a smarmy maid, that I was caught. My mother had arrived from the market and burst into the room with a paper bag of sweets for me. The bag fell. Her mouth opened and trembled. Her eyes grew round and dumb. I will not forget that face for as long as I live. It was the first time I realized what pain looked like, what bereavement looked like. My father whipped me when he arrived, but I instantly got over that. What I never got over was that face, her face that seemed so fragile and ancient I was scared it would crumble in sunlight.
Between my mother and me, no word flew. I only found out later that she put all the dolls in a huge box and burned them. I was transferred to another room, painted blue and teeming with all sorts of male paraphernalia. No doll was ever seen in the house again. In the years that followed, I received boxing gloves, basketballs, bicycles, jogging shoes, toy guns, remote-control airplanes, binoculars, scooters, even soft-core girlie magazines that my father would “accidentally” leave in my room and which I would “secretly” keep under my pillow, I was sent to a swimming camp, a martial-arts school (everything from aikido to wrestling). At eleven, I was drinking gin with my father. At eighteen, I had more than ten girls. When they confronted me years later about a love letter my mother found in my room (it said: “With all my heart, Raymond”), my parents only sighed. “Well, we’ve tried everything. “There’s nothing we can do now,” was all my father said.
But my sister was a different matter. She could not forgive me for “taking away all her dolls.” She considered me the blight of her life. For years, I felt she was watching me, waiting for the moment at which she could trip me up. Coming out of the shower after a long, delicious soak in the tub, I’d hear her mutter “faggot.” Taking on the phone late at night with a classmate of mine, I’d see her smirk and sway her hips in a silly, affected, effeminate manner. Whenever I hit her out of anger, she would run to my Dad with that weak, martyred look, and he too would be furious with me, demanding reasons that I couldn’t five because I couldn’t bring myself to expose my wound, or the source of it. And this is how she got back for my taking away her joy.
Now we are grown-ups. Our relationship is still ever in danger of exploding into wild bickering and bitter recriminations. But we have learned to live with each other. One reason, I guess, is that I lost my taste for dolls. I developed a dislike for their synthetic beauty, and began my worship of other things, like full biceps and hairy chests. So did my sister. (Does that mean I ended up being like her, after all? Or was it she who began to resemble me?” Ironic, but it’s the threat of ruined family ties that made us tolerate each other more. I heard her crying one night in her room after the family had gathered in the kitchen to weep, scream, blame and fight over the fact that my father had another woman. We hardly ever talked, my sister and I, but that night, I felt all my resentment for her melt away. I knocked on her door, and she let me in, and for a moment we didn’t know what to say. Finally, I asked her if she needed someone to talk to, and she said, “yes.” And there, sitting on her bed, surrounded by the things with which she filled the emptiness the loss of her dolls brought to her room, I felt a ray of hope warm my body, the hope that she had forgiven me finally for my unintended crime, and that she was ready to forgive me for more. The wound that connected us for years was closing; the time of festering was over.
And that night, faced with the idea of past hurts and future losses, I told my sister, one by one, all about my lovers.